I suppose that some saints have kept their distance from other people. Blessed Anthony Grassi was the genial kind of saint who, like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri, naturally attracted people and made them feel “good inside”.
Anthony was born in northeastern Italy. His mother was a bit of a scold, but he took after his father, a pious man much devoted to the nearby shrine of Our Lady of Loreto. As a boy, Anthony became acquainted with the local Oratorian Fathers, established not long before by St. Philip Neri. As a result, despite the lively objections of his mother, he entered that religious community at the age of 17.
After his ordination to the priesthood, Anthony soon became known as the “unflappable priest”. As more than one of his close priestly friends later testified, “I have never seen him put out.” (Serenity is a great spiritual gift – to take in stride anything that may happen. The serene person is also able to communicate his peace of soul to the rest of us, who are usually a prey to anxiety!)
Bl. Anthony became especially noted as a confessor and spiritual advisor. God apparently helped him here by giving him the gift to read the souls of his penitents. Some people would ask his advice about undertaking rigorous penitential practices. He himself favored other methods. Thus one person asked him what he thought about wearing a hair-shirt (a prickly horsehair vest that many devout persons have worn next to their skin as an act of penance). Anthony said he preferred the counsel of St. Philip Neri: “Humbling the mind and will is more effective.”
Nevertheless, Father Anthony was not easygoing as a religious superior. As beloved head of the Oratorian Fathers at Fermo, he saw to it that everybody, himself included, adhered to the rules. But, as often as not, he ruled by humor rather than by edict.
For instance, he emphasized the value of quietness. Loud speech, he said, is a sort of violence; so he insisted that his Fathers speak softly. To one of them who raised his voice unnecessarily high, Father Anthony said, “If you please, Father, only a few inches of voice!”
A person of such obvious moderation was much sought out. Nervous cardinals and archbishops asked his counsel. He was naturally equipped to mediate between the people and the Cardinal governor when food riots broke out in 1649, although the mob nearly shot him during the negotiations.
Always, as a priest, a man of charity, he was much chagrined as he approached eighty, when, because of the loss of his teeth, he could no longer preach nor even hear confessions. Yet he accepted even this great frustration with typical serenity. God was humbling him, he sensed, for his own good.
In all Bl. Anthony’s life, there was one experience that had great importance in his spiritual development. In 1621, when 29 and still quite a young priest, he was struck by lightning as he knelt praying in the shrine Church of Our Lady of Loreto. This was no mystical experience; it was a real nearelectrocution. The electric charge passed through his body and threw him downstairs, paralyzing his limbs and scorching his underclothing. He was given the last rites, but after a few days of care, he recovered.
The lesson of the accident was not lost on Anthony. “I made the discovery,” he later said, “that if we believe death to be close at hand we become quite indifferent to the world and know all earthly things to be emptiness.” To the end of his life thereafter, he daily thanked God for his preservation; and every year he made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to the shrine where he had been struck.
All hardships are difficult, but if they bring us closer to God, they are blessings in disguise – something to be truly thankful for.
–Father Robert F. McNamara